this is not a food blog

sorry, all you foodies out there.  much love.  however, i do feel the need to step out of my box for a minute to share with you a recipe that is awesome, a recipe that i haven’t made in over two years, but used to be a staple for me, ever since i learned its secret from a good friend’s former boyfriend who was a vegan, and also 1/8 lebanese, or something.  the first bite reminded me of a round belly, of gentle kicking under the shirt, and also, the salty air of the coast of maine, wading through fog-soaked vegetation, isolation, in other words: summer 09′.   it is time to revisit my roots.

the recipe list, as for all lebasese dishes, is surprisingly short and simple.  how can so much flavor come with so few ingredients?  trust me.

1 cup lentils

6 cups water

2 onions, diced

a butt load of olive oil (1/4 cup)

1 bag spinach

the juice of one lemon

salt to taste

the first thing to do is to pour the 6 cups of water and 1 cup of lentils into a pot over high heat, bring to a boil, and then turn down, partly cover, and simmer…for a long ass time.  the bag on the lentils says 45 minutes, but maddy was always the authority on the done-ness of the lentils, so don’t ask me.

boiling lentils
this is easier at home than on our two-burner propane range in maine

oh, i guess i should explain maddy.  in the summer of 09′, i spent 2 and a half months living off the coast of maine as a contractor for the u.s. fish and wildlife service working on a seabird island.  the island was actually two islands, “the brothers”, each tiny and picturesque chunks of rock jutting out of the seabed.  that summer, maddy and i were the 2-man team that worked “the brothers”.  we did seabird surveys, set traps for predators, monitored the nests of some nesting black guillemots, drank a beer every evening and talked, talked, talked.  anyone who has done field work knows: the relationships you form with people you do field work with are much more intense than your everyday friendship.  maddy and i were a culture of two, quickly filling in roles to each other: friend, co-worker, partner, sister.  people used to say we acted like a married couple.  we bickered, bantered, knew each other’s habits, tendencies, and rituals.

anyways, another thing that anyone who has done field work can tell you is that dinner is the most important part of the day.  no time sheet to punch, no one around to tell you when you have done enough, the beginnings of dinner preparation mark the end of a work day, time to relax and forget about the lurking weasel who is after bird eggs, the guillemots on their nests with new peeping chicks, the atlantic puffins and razorbills off the coast bobbing along, waiting to be counted.  they would all wait until morning.

maddy, having arrived in maine from a string of previous field jobs, and having spent two years in france, teaching english, had a descent amount of recipes under her belt, and also an experimental attitude towards food and cooking that i found greatly freeing.  most days, i took her lead and was the resident chopper, grater, stirrer, and sous chef.  this soup was the only recipe that i brought with me that i felt was good enough to share.  and once i did, it became our weekly or biweekly staple, with maddy tweaking bits of it here and there, until we both walked away with the permanent memory of the soup poured over our brains, the roar of the atlantic ocean in the background, the calls of seabirds, the smell of seaweed.

ok, ok. you twisted my arm. here is a picture of western brothers, and the cabin that was our home for over 2 months
here’s maddy. scrub that bird blind!
and here’s me pulling vegetation away from our electrified sheep fence meant to keep the island sheep away from the area where terns may have nested (none did).
and here is another picture of our fog-drenched island, just for shits and giggles

in any case, while you are boiling the lentils, you can begin heating up the olive oil over high heat as well, dice the onions (maddy would also add a clove or two of minced garlic, up to you), and dump them in.  this is a simple recipe, but this is the labor intensive part.  you have to continually stir the onions until they are caramelized, which takes about 20 minutes or so.  if you let them sit there for more than a minute or two, they will burn.  what is the difference between a burnt onion and a caramelized one?  a burnt onion is black, and a caramelized onion is a dark brown.  you are basically deep frying the onions in olive oil to a near-burnt state.  see below.

“before” onions
“after” onions
by the time they reach this state, the front side of your body should be about 10 degrees warmer than usual. when you step away from the stove top, it is like walking away from a fire on a cool night (it is a wonder that ruth wasn’t poached like an egg in amniotic fluid while i used to make this when i was pregnant, my bulbous belly bouncing against the front of the stove).
observe: a caramelized onion. i can’t emphasize the importance of this level of done-ness. it is where all of the flavor comes from.

it is helpful to begin the lentils a bit before the onions as you kind of want them to be done at around the same time.  if you need to, you can just put the onions aside, as i often do, being so bad at timing, until the lentils are done.

by the time the lentils are done, your water should look a bit brown.

i say here again, i am no expert when it comes to lentils.  that was all maddy.  when it is just you and one other person, you find that you fall into your own little niches, take on various duties and responsibilities that, if the other person ever stepped in to do them, would feel way wrong.  i never tested the lentils.  maddy never fried the onions.  however, my tactic copies what i saw her do, which was to scoop out a few lentils and eat them.

yes, this is an ice cream scooper i am using. i am not rich when it comes to kitchen paraphernalia.

anyways, once you determine that your lentils are in fact done, add some salt.  the amount is up to you.  i grew up fearing salt and have become somewhat sensitive to it in my older age, but maddy loved the stuff, and showed no fear (she would add 1/2 a teaspoon).  it really does bring out the flavor a bit.  then, dump the onions into the pot with the cooked lentils.  yes, all the oil too, you don’t want to waste a drop.

the rest is super easy.  you add an entire bag of spinach to the pot.  add this a couple handfuls at a time, as it will wilt and shrink way down.  you can add as much or as little as you’d like.  you’d better believe that, in maine, maddy and i would never have used all of our spinach in one shot like that.  no, it was a precious commodity and was not to be squandered.  i like baby spinach versus full-sized as it makes for smaller bites of spinach, but it’s up to your discretion.

yes, you add the entire bag

the last thing to add is the “juice of one lemon”, for which i clearly use just lemon juice.  however, if you wanna be a bad ass, then go on with your bad self and juice a lemon.  how much again, is a question of personal preference.  in maine, we didn’t have lemons or lemon juice, but would zest oranges, and add some of the orange juice.  truth be told, i like the flavor of orange zest in here better than lemon, but am too lazy for zesting these days.  i add about one and a half tablespoons of reconstituted lemon juice.

i know, i’m lame. this is lemon juice for pussies. so be it.
this is what your soup should look like when it is finished

stir it all around for a few seconds and you’re golden.  if you wanna leave it on the range for a bit longer, you could do that, too, if you wanted to blend all the flavors around for a while (although, i think it is important that the spinach be “just cooked”, rather than totally mushified).

enjoy.  in maine, when our noses were cold from the dampness of the ocean, we would sit in our canvas chairs, bowls of steaming lentil soup in our laps, NPR on in the background, as always, and press our faces into our soup bowls, breathing it in as we ate.  afterwards, we would place any leftovers in the cooler we had wedged under a big rock outside of our tiny cabin, our refrigerator.  then, we would wash our faces, a nightly ritual, and go to sleep on our bunk beds.

it is interesting to me how a recipe that was originated probably hundreds of years ago in lebanon made it’s way to me, here in dearborn, where it was perfected and evolved on an island off the coast of maine, and reminds me of the salt of the ocean, floating seaweed, takes me back to that summer when my nephew was born, when maddy was like my spouse, and also, of being pregnant with ruth.

it just goes to show you how food is so much more than just food (this is where mc donald’s falls short).  it is passed down through generations like fables, changes hands like antique china, evolves with each person who handles it, and is a memory imprint of aroma, taste, feeling, thought.

don’t forget to have seconds.


making the rounds

i know i’m about to sound like scrooge, but: “spring break is over!”  (yay).  now there are no school-aged kids mucking about during the morning and early afternoon hours at the parks, running to beat each other in line at greenfield village, the little dears.  they are safely tucked away back at school where they belong (evil laughter).  ruth and i are able to get back in the old routine, leisurely moving from one piece of equipment to another at the parks, taking our time, watching people come and go from their houses, preoccupied with work, life, their eyes glazing over us.  we are part of the background like a tree or the sky.  i like it this way.

“how are you doing back there?  are you ‘dood'(good)?”  i ask ruth who is behind me in her bike seat patting my back as i pedal.  “yeah,” she says.  we are on our way to donutville, u.s.a. up on ford road for a breakfast doughnut.  i have lived in this neighborhood for three years and it has taken me this long to really get a feel for my neighbors and to get to know some of the different stories unfolding under each roof.  as i said, on this side of town, people keeps it real.  there is no block party with halal hotdogs, moonwalks, and gossip.  it takes time to weave your way into the fabric of life here.  (i think that greg, ruth, and i are more like a hot pink synthetic fiber amongst a thick blanket of strong cotton and wool naturally-dyed fibers, but whatever).  i see the usual people maintaining their lawns, a few mothers with small children out beating rugs in the backyard, the one guy who smokes on his porch is out smoking on his porch.  i’m sure they know who i am at this point.  “there she goes, on her way to donutville,” they might be thinking, if they have been using their powers of deduction by the wax paper bag we often carry back with us and the smell of deep frying grease we exude behind us.  we pass by ruth’s “beam” ( a telephone pole not yet put upright, but lying on it’s side on one of the aprons down the block from us that ruth practices balancing on).

we sit down at the counter facing ford road with our usual: a glazed chocolate doughnut for ruth, a small black coffee for me, and watch the traffic whiz by, listen to the local news blaring too loudly from a tv mounted behind the counter, chit-chatting about this and that, observing who comes and goes.  there is the smell of coffee on a burner, doughnut grease (so thick it gives you heartburn just smelling it), and a lingering faint hint of cigarette smoke from all of the decades that smoking was allowed in such establishments.  a few mail people come in, uniformed up, taking a break on their route, older men in small groups, talking politics.  a lot of people just run in to grab coffee and leave immediately.  ruth likes to spin on the stool.

after that, we make our way over to one of our regular parks and find it pristine and empty.  ruth dapples in swings, then progresses to the slide, and then picks up some rocks and then announces,”home.”  after loading her back into the bike seat, i notice that one of my mittens has gone missing, but i don’t fret.  we’ll just pick it up tomorrow along our route.

after muddling around in the kitchen, tossing chickpeas into our food processor, with classical days on 90.9 on in the other room, ruth pushing a stuffed animal around in a stroller, i realize that, “we’re out of tahini.” ( a vital ingredient in hommus, my daily staple.  i eat it on whole wheat arabic bread with a pile of spinach on top.  it has enough raw garlic in it that my skin gives off that bitter aroma through the pores).  i announce to ruth that we need to go on an adventure for tahini.  “no tahini,” she says, but lets me put her shoes and coat on anyways and buckle her into her car seat with minimal struggle.

we take our place amongst the mid day shoppers, that is to say, the retired and the unemployed.  i let ruth pick out the broccoli and throw things into the back of the cart.  we get not one, but two (i like to have a back-up) big jars of tahini and a fresh loaf of arabic bread.  the check out people probably know me as the annoying lady who picks out the obscure vegetables that need to be looked up in the code book.  the cashier tries to say “hi” to ruth who just stares at her expressionless, sizing her up.

“thanks,” i say as we make our way out the door and then back home.  hommus for lunch and then a nap.

when did life take on such a small scale?  i pick up toys instead of do yoga.  in lieu of hunting jobs, i hunt clothes for ruth, activities to sign up for, the damn diaper cream.  i don’t swear.  instead, i make endless funny faces for ruth, her lunch, phone calls when she sleeps.  i steep in showers, letting my brain melt out my ears, down the drain, emptying my head.  but the clutter builds up again too fast.  the clutter of concern, of worry, of thinking and planning.

we move through our small circuit like molasses, our feet solid and firmly planted.  here.

photo documentary

do others do this?  i know that you all know that i am a stay-at-home parent (what more can i do but yell it from the rooftop towards the oncoming traffic on greenfield?) and my husband works full time.  therefore, he misses a lot of what goes on between ruth and i when he is not around.  it is not uncommon for him, after being home for a few minutes, in the other room with ruth to yell something like, “she just said________!!”  and me, after rolling my eyes to no one but myself will respond with, “i know, greg.”  wondering why i can’t just be left alone for five minutes and what does he think goes on here all day?  we just stare at each other?   there isn’t hardly one thing that she has begun to do that i haven’t been the first witness to.  i like it that way.  i hold fast to anything that gives me clout in my little domain.

however, most days when greg comes home and asks what we did all day, i feel  a vague pang as i scramble to mentally reconstruct the day, mostly coming up with, “um….we ate….something….”  i find that it helps to document my days.  with photos.  and videos.

how did people do it before the digital age?  as a kid growing up, i remember snapping pictures, thinking they were gonna be awesome, waiting to fill up an entire roll of film (24 pictures?  that could take months) then taking the film in to arbor drugs, filling out the forms, then going back after a week to pick them up only to find that half of them were all dark because your finger had been over the lens and the rest were all crap and from things you couldn’t even remember happening.  to find a frame-able photo was rare indeed.  it is amazing that parents from my moms generation and before can even remember anything that happened with their kids (actually, i secretly believe that a lot of what my mom says happened never did.  it has happened before that she will be pointing out a picture, telling a story of someone’s birthday and it will be the wrong season in the picture).

who needs a photographic memory when you have a photographic documentary of each day?  any time ruth does something new, i snap a photo.  i take a video.  when i leave the house, i always make sure to have my keys, phone, and camera with fresh batteries.   if i had to pick out of the three which i was least willing to part ways with, it would be the camera (usually no one calls me any ways except my in-laws, and i can always climb in a window to get back into my house).  but just try and take my camera from me and see what happens.  i’ll pop a crack in yo ass.

i find it much easier, and more gratifying, to simply hand greg the camera, “here.”  then stand by as he beeps through all the pictures, smiling to himself, laughing, and perhaps asking questions along his virtual journey through our day.  it is kind of like he was there with us, a floating observer, a witness to our misdeeds and moments.

it’s much less frustrating this way.  plus, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and believe me, after greg gets home, i need a break from talking.

kinetic energy

well, i’ve done it again.  an entire week without a post.  this time, i have a valid excuse: i hosted a party at my house and as any other semi hoarders out there would know, that that meant an entire overhaul was in order.  combined with detailed cleaning of things that are overlooked on a day-to-day basis, like the ceiling fans and crusted food inside the fridge, and you’ve got a few solid days worth of cleaning on your hands.  i even broke out the nail polish remover and finally got the tape bits off my front windows from the christmas lights.  three years ago.  does anyone need a venue for a party?  because my house is sparkling right now.

in all seriousness, i want to talk about something serious.  no, i’m not about to announce that i have a brain fog and need to throw myself into a volcano in order to save a tiny island culture (what?  you don’t know this reference?  go watch “joe vs. the volcano”, arguably tom hanks best movie).  i’m just going to tell you about our trip to the zoo yesterday and i will do my best to explain why it is making my heart feel heavy, saggy, and drippy like a soaked beach towel.

do other people do this?  in any given place, i am aware of numerous selves throughout time.  when i am somewhere that i have been to before, i am not only experiencing my current activity there, but am constantly glancing out of the corner of my eye at my past self and what she was doing the last time i was there.  i try to figure her out.  what was she thinking?  how was she feeling?  and how did she see her life differently than i do now, if at all? (if you are a buddhist monk reading this, you probably have the urge to reach out to me and tell me that i am gaining unhappiness by looking over my shoulder in this way, always reliving the past.  you might try to tell me to be fully present in the moment and not to be so attached to former versions of myself or concepts of myself.  all good advice, but not something a pessimistic wonderer like myself is capable of.  thanks, anyway).

we spent a lot of time at the zoo last year beginning in april.  even though ruth couldn’t yet walk, we bought a membership, confident that she would be soon and then be all over that place like white on rice.  well, it turns out that she didn’t walk until july and even then, it was bad.  most of our time at the zoo was spent struggling to make it from one exhibit to the next, constantly trying to get her into the stroller, having her get out and holding her hand or hover over her in case she faltered, taking the tiniest, slowest baby steps ever.  we’re talking snail’s pace here.  i used to feel a bit foolish when other parents whizzed by us with their passel of older, fast-walking, running, even, kids, pointing things out to them and talking a mile a minute back and forth.  i used to burn with envy as i looked back down at my little chub ball, feeling like the day would never come when she would take off like that, propel herself at that rate, and talk back to me about things, even ask questions.  when we would reach an exhibit, i would hoist her up on my shoulder and point out the animals.  her reaction was somewhat distracted, cranky, and non verbal.  at times like that, i would wonder to myself, “why am i even bothering?  why bring her here?  why put my back through this?  i’m hot.  she’s hot.  this is stupid.”

we have gone to the zoo over the fall and a few times in the winter, but this past monday was the first time we have been in this crazy summer weather.  maybe that’s why the two versions of her were so prevalent in my head, juxtaposed to each other, and vastly different, her last summer self and her current self.  she now runs all over, avoiding being run over by wagons and people with relative ease.  she never needs help walking.  she is interested in the animals and things at the zoo.  she moves forward independently of us.  she has a constant stream of banter going with herself, imaginary friends, and sometimes even us.   she is the version of herself i envisioned her being last year when we bought our membership.  i kept looking back at her last year self, seeing that she has become what i have waited so long for her to become.  that inquisitive, autonomous toddler, steady on her feet, self-directed.

in physics, you learn that there are two types of energy: potential energy and kinetic energy.  potential energy is stored up energy, the possibility for kinetic energy.  kinetic energy is basically what all of the potential energy of something gets converted into once a thing begins moving, the energy of motion.  in other words, for every ounce of kinetic energy gained, an equal amount of potential energy is lost.  if you hold a rock up in the air, it is full of potential energy.  let it go, and little by little, at each point of it’s trajectory, all of it’s potential energy gets converted into kinetic energy.

ruth is on such a trajectory.  for every ounce of kinetic energy she gains, the energy of forward motion, there is potential energy lost.  little did i realize that those same parents i envied were looking over their shoulder at me, at what they have already lost hold of, the special feeling of having everything in front of you.  at the time, i was drained from lugging around a portly baby everywhere, but now i see how special, unique, and short lived that time was, her first exposure to everything when she was crouched like a bud, just peeking out, absorbing life inwards.  all of a sudden, it’s like on a roller coaster when it takes forever to reach the top of the first peak and then you tick….tick….tick over the edge, and suddenly, the acceleration begins at an exponential rate.  everything she has been absorbing, taking in, is rushing out, like the burst of a bright flower, a rock rolling downhill or dropped from a great height.

don’t get me wrong.  i love seeing the way she changes every day, the way her mind is always reaching out in a thousand directions like sycamore branches.  but i must look back at that smaller version of herself, that dormant seed self that i carried close to my heart and whispered to, and sigh.  for the loss of even the tiniest bit of potential, the small bit of her life that she has already lived.  that is no longer in front of us, but behind us, written in stone, unable to be wiped clean, rewritten, re lived.  we passed a few smaller babies at the zoo.  ruth whipped by them at what must have seemed like lightning speed.  i could see the perspiration on the brows of the parents, the way they looked at ruth with longing as they bent over and supported their not-yet-walkers, but something in my heart became heavy, fell to the bottom and sat there like a stone.  and i took a minute to hold it, examine it, feel it’s weight.  then i put it in my pocket as a memento, a reminder.  of lost potential.

adventure walks

wow.  it has been a week since my last post.  haven’t done that in a while.  my only excuse is my newly reignited passionate relationship with sleep.  sleeping too much, infatuated with my sleep.  therefore, no time to myself away from ruth, a.k.a. time to write this blog. if you want more posts, you should ring my doorbell a bunch of times at 6 am, then run away giggling down the street.

when i was younger, i had a dad.  i had the sort of dad who was a self-employed carpenter. a throat-clearing, flannel-wearing unabashed salami-lover.  a loud-music listener, sound-wave-absorber.  a slow-pacer.  a thinker-walker.  maybe this is why my brain works best when my feet are moving.  if my brain is the light bulb, my feet are turning the pedals, creating the electricity, moving the rusted gears.

one thing about parenting a toddler is that so much of your day is not self-directed.  sure, you can make suggestions of activities, print them out on a card and place them in the suggestion box that is ruth’s mind, but more than likely, they will be ignored. mostly, i try to politely oblige ruth’s initiative and go along with her agenda.  sometimes, though, politeness must be thrown out the window in order for sanity to be preserved.  like yesterday.

i have talked with other stay-at-home parents who agree that there is a certain after-nap-funk that overtakes the young ones and can be as difficult to shake as dog fur from a black pair of pants.  pretty difficult.  i can only empathize as i hate to nap myself and always wake up feeling something like someone waking from a month-long coma might feel: like i’ve lost control, am out of touch with my life, missed something vital.  the time after after nap and before bed is, unarguably, the longest, most difficult stretch of the day.  ruth got up from her nap with a scowl on her face, her lip curled, which is never good.  “ok,” i said, “let’s go for a walk.”  and before she could protest, i had thrown my coat and shoes on, grabbed my phone and keys and stuffed ruth into her coat and boots before running out the door as though from some invisible demon, whose name is monotony and is never without his buddies, frustration and self-criticism.

it took about a block to begin to shake the agitated feeling that had been coming over me, and just the mere act of walking was serving to calm my vibrating, strung-out nerves.  ruth looked at me like, “do i need to call someone, mom?”  which is a look i fear i will probably need to get used to.  i put on my biggest fake smile and commented about the birds nearby.  i’m sure i didn’t fool her.  she can read my moods and thoughts like a book, damn her little perceptive self.  it’s pretty bad when your not-even-two-year-old is looking at you like you’re crazy.  i took a moment to berate myself for being such an imperfect role model, but that, too began to fall away as we continued our walk.  i had a destination in mind, sort of.  something i had noticed before while driving.  there was a bridge over ford road to the other side down one of these side streets, and we were going to find it, and walk the bridge.

“we’re going on an adventure.” i said to ruth, as she kept her skeptical gaze upon me, holding my hand, half-running to keep up with my anxious gait.   “here we are!” i said a little too exuberantly as i began tugging her up the steps.  once we were up and began to traverse the bridge, i looked down and realized that this bridge was pretty frickin’ scary.  it was all janky and rickety as hell and you could look down through it to the traffic speeding by below.  i ignored the feelings of panic that were overtaking me as right before we got on, a few elementary-school-aged kids crossed over with ease, and i kept going.  “isn’t this fun?” i asked ruth without slowing down.  we reached the other side and went down the steps.  immediately, i breathed a sigh of relief.  there was something symbolic about crossing ford road, leaving one side, getting to another, that made me finally feel calm.  as though my problems were still trapped on the other side, too afraid to walk the bridge.  “chicken.” i said in a taunting voice under my breath towards the other side of the street.

“c’mon, ruth. let’s go see what’s over here.”  at that moment, it was like my dad talking through me, with my voice, and all of the “adventure walks” we had gone on with him when we were younger came back to me.  it was the first time i wondered if this was what he had been doing all of those times, walking to shake off problems that weighed him down like a heavy cloak, to calm his reeling mind.  for a moment, i embodied him, and i paused to let the feeling sink in and linger a minute longer.  “is this what you were doing, dad?”  i wondered what invisible demons he had been trying to shake.  part of being a parent is finally seeing things from your parents point of view, stepping into their tattered slippers for a spin around the block, or over a walking bridge, on an afternoon when you are crawling out of your skin.

ruth and i continued on towards the park for an evening of playing, now that the wind had whipped our hearts clean and the walk had invigorated our blood.  stay tuned for more adventures of the thinker-walker.

bridge to escape from problems. just don't look down

ode to uncle ronnie (whose name was george??)

i remember a tall man with oddly angled eyebrows, browned skin and a booming voice, choked by years of cigarette smoke.  that’s all.  no personality, conversation, shared experiences to remember, connected by genetic material only, a common root.

in the car ride to your viewing, my mom drove in her herky jerky way.  the woman should never own a stick shift.  there was an uncharacteristic fog hanging thickly, making the road before us seem foreign, although it was the same old michigan avenue i’ve driven my whole life on.  she talked in brief staccato about you watching her as a child, that you were in the navy ( i didn’t know that), that your wedding was the first time she could remember her own parents being too preoccupied to keep proper watch over her.  “i ran around acting crazy, drinking all kinds of pop.”  i asked what you were like, and she said you were a boozer, a smoker, and the life of the party, the kid of the family, although she thought that aunt nancy might have been younger.  it wasn’t until yesterday that i solidified your immediate family in my own mind, drew the line of connection clearly from you to me.  did i know that you were the brother to my grandpa?  nine years younger than he?  no, i don’ think so.  you were just there, as so many other distant relatives.  and now you’re not there.

as we walked in to the parlor, my mom starting looking for some place to put her coat.  trust that lady to leave you in the lurch of a funeral parlor doorway to look for somewhere to deposit her frock.  i signed us in with a shaky hand, focusing really hard on writing my name, buying time before entering.  i took your holy card.  something for me to hold on to.  your collectors card.  i have too many holy cards already.  i wish i didn’t have them.  i glanced around the room, seeing many people in black, grouped together in circles talking, having the sensation, just like at so many family parties, that people looked familiar but of the names and connections, i could never be sure.  i stood by awkwardly as my mom circulated around the room, greeting her cousins, and her cousins’ cousins and her uncles’ brother’s hairdressers, hearing her mention me once in a while, gesturing in my general direction, “and that’s my daughter.  she has a daughter that’s nearly two.”  i would smile a tight-lipped smile back across the room.  my mom is the kind of person to really enjoy the socialization at a funeral home, an excuse to see people she is too self-conscious to try to connect with in normal life.  the kind who likes to cry with others, share in their grief because it helps her reconnect with her own.  “damn you, mom.  just leave me high and dry, why don’t you?”  i thought for a moment, but i let her have at it.  i am an adult, after all.  i guess i shouldn’t need my mother to hold my hand.

after a few minutes, i realized that i was the perfect person to be at this viewing.  no one really knew me or who i was, so i was free to wander around, look at the pictures, the video montage, the corpse even, uninhibited, un-accosted.  “who were you, uncle ronnie?”  was the thought repeating itself in my head, as i made my way around the room.  in a way, i was like a detective, piecing together the puzzle.  sad to say, i seem to get to know a person at his/her funeral much better than i ever did in life.  i always feel like i am looking for some answer or understanding, some clue that must be in the room, under one of the over stuffed ornate chairs, or clinging with static electricity up in the heavy drapery.  i like to press my face really close into old pictures, to try to block out the surrounding present day, to try to see into the picture, as though i was there.  i found one that seemed to be the quintessential uncle ron that my mom had described to me.  an orange-tinted picture from the sixties or seventies of you standing with a drink in your hand, your hair whipped up into a dramatic curve talking with someone at a party.  there were a few of your wedding day and didn’t you both look like the world was splayed out before you?  i saw you posing as a father of very young children.  “that’s me,” i thought.  i saw the progression of your face through the decades, how the gray crept in, the skin sagged, but those eyebrows still stood erect and firm.  i saw you giving rides to your grand kids in a riding mower.  in one, you were bent down to tie your young granddaughter’s shoe lace.  she looked about three.  i was surprised by a little tear that squeezed out my bottom lid and pooled in my eye at this.  it was a touching picture, and maybe i saw my own dad with ruth there, something he would never do.  perhaps i am more like my mom than i care to admit at times.

on a board arranged by your grand kids , there were pictures of all of the things you loved.  seeing a picture of Colombo, i remembered sitting with my own grandpa as he guffawed along to various episodes.  must have been a family trait.  i learned that you were called “papa” just like ruth calls her grandpa, you liked butterscotch hard candy, peanut butter cookies, and alf.  you were buried with a little stuffed alf.  did you know that?

i stood by your corpse for a long while, feeling the weight of the end of a life, catching tid bits of stories being told about you over my shoulder.  that is all that’s left of you: stories.  just then, an older woman came up and stood next to me.  “he went gray.”  she said.  i liked this woman. “how did you know him?” i asked.  “he was the best man in my wedding.”  just then, my aunt nadine came and embraced the woman and told the story of how both of their husbands worked at the news and this woman’s husband asked uncle ron to be his best man after knowing him only a couple of weeks, because he was the only catholic man he knew.  they had been friends ever since.  fifty years or so.  now, both of their husbands were dead.  i began to wonder about the end of life culture of widows, women who outlive their husbands.

we left shortly thereafter, stopping in the bathroom on the way out.  this is where we will all end up.  in a place where the women’s bathroom walls are a pepto bismol pink and there are hideous floral displays everywhere, people awkwardly talking about us, summing us up, honoring us in little ways.  as morbid as this is, i feel like we had a nice chat, you and i, in the funeral parlor, but i still left wondering.  if you were trying to signal something with your inverted eyebrows, gesture towards something behind me, i missed it.  i guess one day, i’ll figure it out.  probably when people are sitting on the pot in the pink bathroom stall of my funeral home, laying where you’re laying.

greg’s 28th

anyone who has a kid knows that the best birthday gift is having a day without your kid.  on greg’s 28th birthday, which also happened to be presidents’ day, we got a get out of kid free card, the entire day to ourselves.  we tried really hard not to seem too giddy while we were dropping her off, too anxious to leave, but i’m sure that at this we failed.  what to do?

we decided to visit the henry ford museum as it was free admission for presidents’ day.  no one seems to believe me when i say that one shocker about becoming a parent is the physical burden that goes along with it.  going somewhere without a small child must feel like a work horse having the yolk lifted after a long days’ plowing.  you actually stand up straighter, seem to have lost about fifteen pounds, can breath more deeply. we skipped up to the museum entrance like a couple of preteens, holding hands and all.  it was then that we realized the fatal flaw in our plan.  every single person living in the detroit metro area was also at the museum, enjoying the free admission.  greg doesn’t mind crowds, but i will admit that i sometimes have a suffocating fear of large groups of people.  i sometimes simply can’t take that type of humanity.  the streaming collage of people type.  it makes me feel small, like i’m disappearing, like i’m drowning, and also like, “why the hell did i have a kid?  look at all these people everywhere.”  any psychologists reading this, feel free to have at it (if you need any more keys to unlocking my particular brand of crazy: i am a scorpio and a middle child, the only girl, my parents didn’t go to college and i’m polish).  greg, trying to avert a public meltdown by me, took my hand and led me into the clocks exhibit.  never heard of it?  that’s because it is not only hidden, but the most boring corner of the museum (except for the farm equipment.  shudder).  there was no one around and something about staring at old clock faces is calming.  if you actually had the patience to read the interpretive signs, it’s not a bad exhibit, and goes through the entire history of keeping track of time and the advances in clock-making.  at one point, greg read an excerpt that said that the evolution of clocks and their increasing accuracy lead to a corresponding increase in anxiety among americans and the token obsession with punctuality that is still around today.  damn those damn clock-makers.  there would never be any obsessive clock-watching if there hadn’t been clocks.  i tried to imagine a life without clocks, living life in bigger chunks (day, night) than on an hourly, sometimes by-the-minute level.  i couldn’t do it. at that point, i happened to look up at the nearest clock to see that our precious time was dwindling.  it was time to move on.

when you are married to a biologist, you can always find little chunks of wilderness (whoa-whoa, as ruth calls it) no matter where you are.  i followed greg as he walked into a tangled bunch of trees and somehow ended up on a little serene path along the rouge river.  for those that grew up in dearborn, the smell of the rouge is something that brings back childhood memories.  like a cigar, it is sweet and pungent, earthy and a little sulfurous.  the fallen trees and debris around us was like the wreckage of a hundred ships, the path was sandy,  “this is the most degraded ecosystem i have ever seen” greg said as he broke off a piece of Japanese knotweed, an invasive species, and handed it to me.  “i will cane you with this” i said wielding the hollow cane, channeling my younger playful self.  we reached a sewer outflow with a concrete platform above it and sat together, observing the river.  you could tell we have been together for ten years by the 2.5 feet between us.  there was a time in our early dating years when we would have been instantly making out, any time we were out of the public view.  now, the thought crossed my mind, but only as a joke, a throw-back to the old days.  if i could only have back some of the hours i spent in my youth kissing.  i could write a novel.  or take like eighty baths in a row.  the sun was getting lower in the sky, which meant it was, again, time to move on.  we made our way out, spotting a white-breasted nuthatch, chickadee, and hairy woodpecker all taking turns eating from the same cracked walnut.

the last thing we had to do was to  make greg’s birthday cake, a cinnamon coffee cake recipe from my dad’s mom, and to drink some beer.  everyone knows that cakes turn out better if you drink beer while you’re making them.  and blare john mayer.  ok, perhaps i got a little overzealous with the sugar which may not have happened if i wasn’t two beers deep, but, hey, i don’t know about you, but i like my cake sweet.  at one point, i said, “greg, can you believe you’re 28?  i remember your 18th birthday.  that shit is crazy shit.”  he raised his beer in salute.  i did the same.  then, we put the cake in the oven, sat in the living room and waited, looking out the window together, aware of our past, hopeful of our future, enjoying the present.  “happy birthday, you tool.” i said.  “aw, babe” he said, “i love you, too.”